Amritsar and the way to Rajasthan
Flying from Srinagar we reached Amritsar around noon. Since we had plenty of time before we could catch a night bus heading further south to Sri Ganganagar and finally Jasialmer on the western end of Rajasthan, we decided to explore the city a little bit. We stored our luggage in the travel office and waited for the end of the heavy Monsoon rain, which actually flooded the roads within minutes. Our goal was the golden temple, which is definitely worth visiting.
It is the central place of worship for the Sikh – the followers of Sikhism. Sri Harmandir Sahib is a huge building complex with a golden temple in the middle of a big man-made pool edged by wide walkways made from marble, with a collection of buildings full of portraits and smaller shrines around it. Music is played at all time and behind several glass windows Granthis (scholars) are reading and studying in their holy books continuously. You can enter it despite your religion or origin, getting free food and accommodation if you want. The only thing which you have to do is to wash your feet and hands, cover your head and leave all drugs (including cigarettes) behind. I guess it is the most peaceful, welcoming and nicest place of worship I know.
Interestingly we could not see a big amount of tourists, not even domestic ones. Comparing to 4 years ago there were a lot fewer Sikhs with swords – probably due to the clashes in 2014 which broke out on the 30. anniversary of “Operation Blue Star” resulting in serious sword fighting leaving several people injured.
Operation Blue Star was an indian military operation between 1st of June and 8 of June 1984 to wipe out Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and clear Amritsar and its Golden Temple complex from his militant followers. It was a massive operation involving artillery and tanks operating right in the densely populated center of Amritsar leading to thousands of dead soldiers, militants and civilians. Furthermore it led to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, who ordered Operation Blue Star in the first place, less than 5 month later.
After our Golden temple experience and a small city tour we headed back to the bus. Surprisingly, for a part of the way we catched the first indian electronic rickshaw we´ve ever seen! After a very short night we catched a few local busses from Sri Ganganagar to reach Jaisalmer, passing some lonely but busy desert towns like Bikaner and Pokhran. The local busses here are still very cheap but tough as well. The heat and dust sometimes makes bus drives less enjoyable, while seats are mostly poor and space very limited. In total the whole trip was an exhausting 36 hours long drive.
Luckily Meeru, our beloved friend from the Thar Desert, already waited for us at the bus station. He took us to his guesthouse the Dreamtime Bungalows by road around 35km south-west of Jaisalmer. The “Golden City” Jaisalmer and its surrounding area is probably my favourite in India, even there are no mountains and no forests at all. This is not only due to Meeru himself but the lovely people and their partly preserved very traditional and unbelievable lifestyle.
When we arrived it was surprisingly rainy and we had to pass several streams with Meerus Jeep. Meeru told us that it was raining for the last 14 days – not only the first proper rain since 7 years in the area but the first time in his whole life for such a long time. All different kinds of life appeared all over the normally very dry and dead area and we could watch a lot more animals – especially insects than usual.
Most of them were very nice, and in some cases even fluffy like in this case – watch the little pink fluffy brain spiders:
Unfortunately less than a week after rain stops they disappear again, so we could only watch them for a very limited time. Apart from watching animals we relaxed most of the time with Meeru around the kitchen or in our bungalow and on its awesome desert terrace with shady hammock shelter. Since we pretty much adopted Meerus desert lifestyle there is not much but relaxing, eating nice thick desert chappatis with spicy curries and enjoying the silence, sleeping outside under the beautiful desert night skies.
When the weather was not to hot we did some walks to discover the surroundings. The nearby oasis, several weird old graveyards and the ancient town of Kuldhara offer a unique scenery.
|The story of Kuldhara (and the other ~80 ghost towns of western Rajasthan)
Around 200 years ago, mostly Brahmans, the highest and very religious caste inhabited this part of the Thar desert and lived in old towns along ancient riverbanks. One day, the Maharaja – the “king” – from a powerful secular caste – visited Kuldhara. After he had a look around it turned out he really likes one of the Brahman girls. He later announced that he will come back soon to take and marry her.
For the Brahmans this was a very serious situation. After the Maharaja left they organized a meeting with all the local leaders of brahman settlements in the region. A marriage was impossible since the caste of the Maharaja was considered to be sinful due to their easy-going lifestyle, involving alcohol and countless mistresses.
Since the Maharaja was known to be ruthless and merciless there were just two possibilities: Either rejecting the Maharajas wish to save their honor while risking the life and freedom of all Brahmans in the region at the same time, or just running away. After some negotiation they decided for the latter one. It is said that all Brahmans – must have been tens of thousands – left over night and migrated to Gujarat, where they live until today, leaving back all their towns deserted.
Until today the ruins are empty and the locals – mostly low-caste Hindus, Banjaras (“gypsys”) and Muslims, consider most things to be made or at least to be under control of ghosts. The base rock is another very interesting thing. It seems to contain of a very old fossil ocean bed. Due to that you can find fossil ammonites and squid bones turned into stone everywhere around. The Kakni River, which I only knew from old stories and tales – like most of the people in Thar desert probably – was actually having water and you had to search ways to cross it. The resulting river landscape in the middle of the desert was just like from a tale.
By walking around we also made friends with some desert dogs. One we probably saved from starving was soon our personal guard, but unfortunately got bitten quite hard by his competitors therefore… On the gate of Kuldhara we also met my old friend Baba. He is today seriously busy compared to 5 years ago when I first smoked a Bidi (indian local cigarette) with him around the entrance gate. At that time he still had goats and probably met no stranger for days and days. Today tourism seems to clearly have an impact on his family – he even gave up his goats. We also went to Jaisalmer a few times (still one of my favourite “cities” in India) to buy food or drinks or just look around when Meeru had to do something there. The fort in the middle of the desert city is very old and still inhabited. In fact, most of the tourism related businesses are here today. The architecture itself is colossal but very fine and detailed at the same time – expressed by massive walls and towers but door frames or windows and oriels full of highly detailed and beautiful stone carvings.
When Meeru had to go to Jodhpur for a few days we made a small desert tour around the Sam sand dunes with Sadam, one of Meerus two lovely helpers. It is always awesome to enter one of those big sand-boxes for grown up persons:-)
We had the fixed plan to go to Goa for Alinas birthday, to stay on the beach and have some drinks, which is pretty difficult in mostly islamic Rajasthan. Here I remember buying beer at night over a middle-man who passes money through a tiny door close to the ground on the corner of an old sandstone building, getting an overpriced bottle of beer in return. But don´t be afraid, during the day it is at least easier to buy beer here. Alinas brother announced to meet us in Goa as well and because we did not feel like leaving for quite some time, we ended up taking a flight from Delhi again.
First we had to go to Delhi by bus and train over Jodhpur. It was a hard drive and after the flight we crossed whole south Goa by public bus, which took despite of the states actual tiny area full 5 hours. We arrived at Agonda beach – still one of the most quite ones, at late afternoon. Unfortunately Agonda itself was a bit too quite since people in rain season just seem to stop working and move away. The whole place was probably never a settlement but just appeared because tourists like beaches. As a result it was sometimes even hard to find an open shop for any simple supplies. In our hotels restaurant probably 10% of what was on the menu was available and especially fish – which we were looking forward to so hard – wasn´t available at all. Seems that there is only decreasing service but no decrease in price in rain season…
Despite all that the beach was very nice, and nobody was there to annoy us. When Christian (Alinas brother) turned up the following day we finally bought lots of beer (even the cocktails were not available) and went to the beach for the whole night of Alinas birthday. We surprisingly even had a beautiful moon eclipse and mist along the beach, which was amazing.
Our following days were quite relaxing as well. A little walking, eating and long evenings on the beach. One day we made an excursion through the jungle to Butterfly beach, which was really exciting. Unfortunately my camera broke, probably due to the intense humidity.
Another day we did an excursion to the small touristy town of Palolem to get some clothes for Christian who wasn´t that well equipped for the hot wetness of Goa´s rainseason. Since rickshaw drivers charge lots around here while they know that they are the only possibility to get around, we hitch-hiked the way what worked out quite good. On the last evening in the hostel a drunken fisherman turned up at our table. He was very talkative, although a proper conversation was not really possible. After we thought he went sleeping, he suddenly returned and gave us lots of fish as a present. Thankful and amazed we gave it to the hostel restaurant so they could finally prepare a nice fish curry for us. A few minutes later they came back with a bowl full of heads – most probably kept the fish for themselves – and told us it is a big speciality around here. Even if, they tried to charge us lots of money for our free fish the next day (400 Rupees, while a good meal on the menu was around 150). I was pretty ridiculous but we finally cheated them as well when they forgot the room rates and I just mentioned a lower one. So we probably balanced each other out. One thing we wanted to do before we would leave Goa was to go camping on the beach. For logistic reasons we decided to stay at Agonda rather than carry all our stuff through the jungle to a more natural beach. So after we left the hostel we first stored our luggage in another restaurant we really got to like, a little further south (Fatima´s Bar & Restaurant – with free WiFi). After another day on the beach we found a good camping spot in front of a beach resort which was busy with renovation works at the moment. The owner was very friendly and offered us to use his bathroom on the site and we even had a shower on the beach. It was a funny night, with lots of beach animals, especially dogs, horses and cows – never thought that all of them like the beach as well.
By the way, watch this guy:
Our next goal was Hampi, since it is one of the main sights and just a short distance from Goa (for indian scales). We catched a train from the nearby Madgao train station (1 hour drive by taxi ~11€ in total) and in the afternoon we arrived in Hospet after a 7 hours train ride. With the help of the most honest rickshaw driver we´ve ever met in india, we found a cheap and cool guesthouse with an unused but cool roof terrace.
We also hired the rickshaw driver for a day tour around all the temples the next day. The temples were very interesting and impressive. Temples for many different gods and other massive architectural leftovers from the ancient kingdom of Vijayanagara (14. – 16. century) strongly shape the area until today. But apart from the temples the whole area is kind of magic. especially the huge granite boulders laying around everywhere are very exceptional. It is a very old landscape, probably it is nearly 4 billion years in the making. The part of earth crust in this region of Karnataka was never modified by plate tectonics after it was formed. Such an extended period of time exposed to the weather is even long enough to let wind and rain erode the massive, hard granite rocks. (Can you see me in the photo?)
We did not visit all the temples since we already spend too much money in india until then and we really got sick of the geographical discriminating prices – around 50 times higher than the locals entry fee in that case. You are supposed to pay for the royal enclosure and one of the most interesting temples, the Achyutaraya Temple in the north-east of the area. We tried to negotiate but we were just told that our face looks to rich and nobody would care if we leave again. We decided to go to the main temple in the north and try to get half the ticket price since it was just one temple in contrast to the royal enclosure with all its temples and buildings. After the same thing happened there we were a bit disappointed but then we found a much more beautiful side of Hampi when we just stepped a few more meters further from the mass tourist trail.
So in the end we did not se the famous stone temple car but got rewarded with far less crowded mystical places. A holy tree full of small pockets of sacrificial offerings and a tiny temple under one of the boulders in a Mars-like landscape where we even got our Bindi (the red dot on the forehead) from a really old fashion hindu priest and did not even have to pay for it. The first real religious experience without any cheating – finally.
Unfortunately there was another public holiday again and all hotels were fully booked for the next days, which eventually turned out good for us when the boss offered us to sleep on the roof terrace for free. We were encountered by monkeys in the morning, which are all around Hampi by the way, but it was still a very nice place to sleep, better than the hot and quite shitty rooms at least and we could save some money. After a walk around the small tourist town which grew inside the temple ruins over the years, we met some “monks” in traditional clothes. They invited us for a picture with them but then showed us something like a guest book with stupidly high donations for what ever purposes. We gave them a small amount, slightly smiling a thought of doing the same in future. It would actually pay out pretty well since everybody just takes photos of you 🙂 The rest of our time in Hampi we ate and relaxed in the typical indian rooftop restaurants, with lots of pillows and funny menus full of indian adaptations of any kind of foreign food. These typical backpacker restaurants all over well-known travel destinations in india, got much more expensive over the last years unfortunately. But it is still very cheap compared to european prices (<3€ a meal) and if you pick a good one the atmosphere is very shanti.
Thar Desert the 2nd
We decided to go back to Thar desert, since we really regretted leaving Meeru so quick and he kept asking us to come back. So we prepared to make a brutal overland journey of approximately 1800km back to the desert and took a sleeper bus to Mumbai first (best we´ve ever had, with personal TV, AC and nice beds – unfortunately we forgot the company).
From Mumbai we took a train to Ahmedabad, where we had a quick stop over with dinner and then took a bus to Jaisalmer from another part of the city. It was more than 30 hours travel but mostly fun.
Back in Thar desert Christian announced that he will sponsor a goat for a barbecue. It only took a short while until somebody passed the area with his animals and Meeru did not hesitate to buy one. The following butchering, preparations and the barbecue filled the whole day and the evening after that. After a few more days around the Dreamtime Bungalows with some more walks around Kuldhara and visits to Jaisalmer we also finally completed a Kubb game. So if you ever want to chill out in Thar Desert and play Kubb I recommend you to go to Dreamtime bungalow – it most probably isn´t possible anywhere else in India.
Because of heat, limited time and limited transport possibilities we did not get a fair picture of Jaisalmer this time. It is a very interesting city, tiny for India but big for historically and culturally interested people. Probably I find time to share more photos and stories with you when we are back in Germany.
Before we had to hit the road again we made a jeep safari with Meeru and Hussain. It was a small sand dune area close to a village of Meerus relatives in the east. Seeing the sunrise in the quietness of the desert again, surrounded by golden sand was expectedly awesome. Also interesting and somehow scary was to see all the traces around your bedding after sunrise.
Especially after rain, the desert is actually pretty busy…
Unfortunately our stay in magical Thar was again short and I got very busy towards the end to get a good transport back to Goa so Christian could reach his flight. After a difficult search I found a connection with sleeper-busses to Ahmedabad and then the only bus from there directly to Goa. Once again 40 hours overland travelling – very crazy. But we did it.
Since we did not have any plan where to go after we arrived in Panaji, we ended up in Calangute which a taxi driver described as cheap and very, very nice – the best and only place for our budget. It turned out pretty full – pretty expensive and the beach was nothing special but crowded. At least we found a very good room after some time, which was slightly over our budget but the best we had on the whole trip and normally costing more than double the money. We used the day to go around town.
The beach did not attract us at all, being crowded with domestic tourists and seriously overpriced restaurants. The town wasn´t much better and it started to rain as well. We heard music coming from a nearby Hindu temple and decided to seek shelter there. After we were approaching carefully, we silently got invited from several people around the gate. So we entered, sat down and had one of the most authentic hindu music experiences in the middle of a touristy town in christian Goa. After quite an intensive dinner we had our last beers with Christian, who had to leave us in the night to go back to Germany again. So after a good-bye ceremony in the night and after a few weeks of unusual but pleasant touch with the reality back home we found ourselves again being on our own.